American Medical Missions Trapped in Gaza, Facing Death by Dehydration as Population Clings to Life

Upward of 20 American doctors and medical workers are trapped in Gaza as a result of Israel’s post-invasion closure of the Rafah border crossing into Egypt, according to sources with knowledge of the plight of two ill-fated medical missions.

Israel has blocked fuel, food, and water from entering Rafah for over a week, leading to severe dehydration among the general population, as well as among the doctors on mission.

Relatives of the doctors were told by the State Department that rescue efforts were underway, including through coordination with the United Nations and the Israel Defense Forces. Yet on Monday, the Israeli military fired on a United Nations vehicle that was traveling to the European Hospital in Khan Younis, near Rafah, killing a U.N. employee who was an Indian national and injuring another.

A family member of one of the doctors stranded at the European Hospital said that he suspected the vehicle was part of the rescue mission, but was uncertain. “We are aware that a car that is similarly supposed to be their rescue passage was shot at and UN employees were killed and injured and we fear for their ability to have a safe passage and exit,” said the relative. “We are aware that there is active shelling around the hospital and that staff has been told to stay away from windows.”

Mossab Nasser, the CEO of FAJR Scientific, a medical group running one of the missions, said that the car that was hit was not headed to evacuate his team. He confirmed that his nonprofit was working with the World Health Organization and U.S. diplomats on an evacuation plan. It was not immediately clear which organization set up the second mission.

Among the stranded doctors is Adam Hamawy, a plastic surgeon and Army veteran from New Jersey. While serving in Iraq, he was on duty when now-Sen. Tammy Duckworth’s mangled body was brought to the hospital after her helicopter was shot down. She credits him with saving her life. Hamawy’s friend Sami Shaban has been in touch with him the past several days and said that he is physically doing well. “He’s a tough dude,” said Shaban, who has lost 35 members of his own family in Gaza. “Now we just need to get him home. We funded the bombing of every single hospital there. You have to at least let the relief people in and out.”

On Tuesday, Duckworth said that she was in touch with Hamawy and was “working hard to secure his group’s immediate evacuation.”

The doctors are rationing water and at least one physician is in poor health and is on an IV drip to combat dehydration. The dire state of the medical mission underscores how difficult the conditions are for average Palestinians, who have spent seven months enduring the Israeli siege, whereas the medical mission arrived only recently. More than 1 million Palestinians are trapped in Rafah, which is at the southernmost end of the Gaza Strip. As Israel threatens a full-scale invasion of Rafah, Israeli troops entered the area last week and took over the crossing into Egypt.

American Medical Missions Trapped in Gaza, Facing Death by Dehydration as Population Clings to Life 1


“Tell the World What’s Happening Here,” Say Patients in Gaza

“The people on the ground always said once y’all are gone and not allowed in, we’re gonna be destroyed like Al-Shifa,” said Dr. Mohammed Khaleel on Monday, referring to Gaza’s largest hospital, which Israel has repeatedly raided. Khaleel recently returned from the most recent mission organized by FAJR. “I guess we were all hoping that wouldn’t be allowed to happen.” Khaleel, who spoke about his experience in a recent Intercept podcast interview, has also been in touch with doctors on the current mission, and he said they remain optimistic they will get out this week.

The FAJR mission was told to leave its safe house, Khaleel said, because it was no longer considered safe.

The Intercept asked about the stranded doctors during the State Department’s daily briefing on Monday. “We’re aware of these reports of U.S. citizen doctors and medical professionals currently unable to leave Gaza,” said spokesperson Vedant Patel. “We don’t control this border crossing and this is an incredibly complex situation that has very serious implications for the safety and security of U.S. citizens. But we’re continuing to work around the clock with the government of Israel and with the government of Egypt to work on this issue.”

Patel added, “Rafah is a conduit for the safe departure of foreign nationals, which is why we continue to want to see it get opened as swiftly as possible.”

Monica Johnston, a nurse volunteering at the hospital, said that a primary concern of those who will be leaving is that new humanitarian workers be allowed in, otherwise the hospital campus is more likely to get overrun by the Israel Defense Forces. The plan, she said, is for the U.N. to do a test run from the hospital to the border Tuesday, only carrying U.N. staff. If those staff are not killed by the IDF — as one international employee was on Monday — then on Wednesday two medical staff will be taken to the border, and two new volunteers will be allowed in to replace them, and so on in coming days.

The European Hospital is badly understaffed due to evacuations and bombings that have made it impossible for many of the local staff to come to work, Johnston said. Coupled with the lack of supplies, minor injuries are becoming fatal. She said she found one deceased patient in the ICU recently whose body had begun the process of rigor mortis, when a body stiffens after death, signifying the extreme nature of the understaffing. As a result, many of the medical staff, she said, despite themselves suffering from dehydration, vomiting, and diarrhea, are reluctant to leave without a guarantee they can be replaced by new humanitarian aid workers.

Update: May 13, 2024, 5:33 p.m. ET
This article was updated to mention a plan to attempt evacuations from Rafah and to identify one of the trapped doctors, Adam Hamawy.

Update: May 14, 2024
This article was updated to include a response from Mossab Nasser of FAJR Scientific and to specify that the U.N. worker who was killed on Monday was an Indian national. It was also updated with comments from Monica Johnston, including new developments regarding evacuation plans, and from Sen. Tammy Duckworth.

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